Spying Gone Awry
A covert surveillance operation in Maryland tramples on civil liberties.

Friday, October 10, 2008

THOMAS E. HUTCHINS, the former Maryland state police superintendent, spoke about a covert operation that spied on harmless activists for the first time at a legislative hearing this week. Mr. Hutchins, who authorized the operation, didn't provide new information about the spying program. But his spirited defense of the surveillance and his refusal to acknowledge serious missteps offers insight into the flawed mind-set that led to the operation's creation.

Mr. Hutchins's testimony followed the release of a report that depicts the spying operation in vivid detail. The surveillance started as an attempt to gather information about those protesting the death penalty. Spurred by the post-Sept. 11 frenzy to detect terrorist plots, it morphed into 14 months of spying, during which the state mistakenly labeled 53 nonviolent activists as terrorists. The 93-page report, compiled by former Maryland attorney general Stephen H. Sachs, concluded that the secret monitoring, which occurred from March 2005 to May 2006, "significantly overreached." That's a considerable understatement.

The monitoring started when a police commander requested information about whether the upcoming executions of two death row inmates would lead to unruly protests. Mr. Hutchins claimed that his men were not spying but monitoring "open public meetings." He arrogantly asserted, "I don't believe the First Amendment is any guarantee to those who wish to disrupt the government." His story was incomplete, to say the least. In fact troopers used aliases to infiltrate organizational meetings, rallies and group e-mail lists, even though an early assessment of the "threat" posed by the death penalty protesters "did not identify any specific threat to public safety."

Neither former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) nor Mr. Hutchins cooperated with the investigation. It's unlikely that Mr. Ehrlich knew of the program when he was governor, but it's troubling that he didn't speak with investigators. Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, the current state police superintendent, assisted with the probe and announced that he will follow the report's recommendations.

Mr. Sachs recommended implementing binding regulations for how state police spy on activist groups and purging state databases of information gathered through the illicit surveillance. He also called on state police to contact all the individuals it mistakenly spied on and share the information gathered. Those are necessary steps. Maryland should do everything in its power to ensure such an alarming violation of civil liberties doesn't happen again.

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